Shenandoah National Park: Roughing it, presidential style, 5 hours north of Charlotte

Camp Rapidan is more than a little off the beaten path.

The one-time presidential retreat with cabins, a dining hall and a town hall served as the summer White House of President Herbert Hoover and first lady Lou Henry Hoover.

The 164-acre tract sits east of the Skyline Drive at the headwaters of the Rapidan River on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It once included 13 cabins, man-made waterfalls, rock gardens, paths and bridges.

It was the first complex specifically designed as a presidential retreat. Today the camp, also dubbed Camp Hoover, is a National Historic Landmark. Only three of the original buildings are still standing. Interpretive signs are also posted.

Hoover, the 31st president, used the camp as an informal setting for planning sessions with his Cabinet and for private meetings with foreign leaders. It was a place for hiking, horseback riding, fishing and conversation.

It's yours for the hiking.

There are two ways to visit Camp Rapidan: You can hike in when Mill Prong, a splashy stream, is not too high, or you can join summer van tours by the National Park Service from the Byrd Visitor Center.

On an April visit to Shenandoah, I was too early for a van tour. So I hiked the Mill Prong Trail from the Milam Gap Trailhead. It was supposed to be a moderately tough four-mile round trip. I successfully crossed the stream twice on stones, but high water thwarted the third crossing near Big Rock Falls, a 15-foot cascade. I was about a quarter mile from the camp and could not get safely across.

Presidential getaway

The land where Mill Prong and Laurel Prong form the Rapidan River was purchased by the Hoovers in early 1929 before the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression.

The camp was built and operated by U.S. Marines. The Hoovers paid for the land and the building materials.

The buildings were simple one-story, gable-roofed, brown-stained frame cabins with lots of windows. They housed only bedrooms, bathrooms and porches.

The Hoovers were very social and rarely visited Camp Rapidan alone. Guests included Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Mrs. Thomas A. Edison, the Edsel Fords, Henry Luce and Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

According to humorist Will Rogers, Lindbergh helped the president build dams along Mill Prong to form trout pools.

Hearty country breakfasts and dinners were served in the Mess Hall. Lunches were often served outdoors.

Mail and newspapers were dropped daily from airplanes into the adjoining Marine compound. There were separate nearby facilities for White House staffers and camp workers.

Roughing it was not new to the Hoovers. He was a mining engineer before becoming president and his wife and children accompanied him on foreign trips. In the first 15 years of marriage, the Hoovers had lived in mining camps in 60 countries.

Lou. Hoover worked closely with architect James Y. Rippen in designing the camp. She wanted the "Brown House" - as opposed to the White House - close to the streams so her husband could "hear the water murmuring."

The site was within 3 1/2 hours of the White House, and provided relief from summer heat and humidity in Washington - and first-rate trout fishing for the president.

The first cabins were canvas tents on wooden platforms. Fireplaces offered the only heat at first.

Hoover intended for the camp to be used by future presidents. But his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, used a wheelchair. He visited Camp Rapidan once and found it too rugged. He built and used Camp David in Maryland instead.

Life as a national park

Hoover donated Camp Rapidan in 1932 to the state of Virginia to be included in the proposed Shenandoah National Park. It became part of the new park in December 1935. The site was used by the Boy Scouts from 1948-1958.

It served as a VIP retreat from 1975-2000: Jimmy Carter and his family, vice presidents Walter Mondale and Al Gore and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor were among the visitors.

The park service has restored what survived from Camp Rapidan to its 1931 look. That includes removing later building additions. Exteriors have been renovated, along with the interior of the Brown House. Rooms are left empty if the park service is unable to document how they were decorated.

A small museum has been added in the Prime Minister's Cabin. The third cabin still standing is the Creel Cabin that was once occupied by Hoover's personal secretary. The other buildings, in bad shape, were razed by the park service in 1962.

A major ice storm in 1997-1998 and an invasive species that has killed large hemlock trees have dramatically altered the look of Camp Rapidan.

There's a lot more to see at Shenandoah National Park.

The 197,438-acre park straddles a north-south ridge and provides up-high looks to the east across Virginia's Piedmont and to the west across the picturesque Shenandoah Valley.

The park offers 516 miles of trails, 75 scenic overlooks and a surprising collection of first-rate waterfalls. The most-visited is 70-foot Dark Hollow Falls.

Forty percent of the park is a designated federal wilderness. The white-blazed Appalachian Trail runs 101 miles through it.

The park is 80 miles long and from two to 13 miles wide. It gets 1.2 million visitors a year, said park spokeswoman Karen Beck-Herzog.

There are four visitor entrances, 286 motel rooms and cabins, three visitor centers, four campgrounds and backcountry camping.

The park's main feature is the 105-mile-long Skyline Drive from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro. Speeds are limited to 35 mph and the curvy, two-lane road rises to an elevation of 3,600 feet.

The road may be closed by winter snows. Most park facilities are open from April through November.

Leaves don't emerge on the ridge tops until late May and peak fall color is generally mid-October.